Public Transit Limitations a Barrier for People with Disabilities
(Cedar Rapids)—Kristen Aller doesn’t drive. It’s not for lack of wanting to. In fact, she dreams of driving a red 1966 Mustang convertible “with the horse on the doors, the front and the back of the car” or possibly a red Volkswagen Beetle.
Aller, 34, of Cedar Rapids, doesn’t drive due to a neurological condition called tuberous sclerosis complex. Aller’s TSC, while a relatively mild case, resulted in an ongoing seizure disorder, disqualifying her from obtaining a driver’s license. Like many people with disabilities, Aller says that one of the biggest challenges of day-to-day life is transportation.
Aller lives a semi-independent life in her NewBo neighborhood apartment. She volunteers with several organizations, such as Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance, Jaycees (Junior Chamber), Toastmasters and Theatre Cedar Rapids. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad appointed Aller to the board of Statewide Independent Living Councils in 2012. She travels to the quarterly meetings in Des Moines. This active lifestyle means that she depends on family, friends and sometimes public transportation to get where she wants to go.
“About the only thing I cannot do is drive,” Aller said. “It can be annoying probably more than anything just having to wait for somebody to come help you get to where you want to be.”
Several transportation services exist for Linn County residents, but not all are useful for people with only a mild disability, like Aller. Taxis and Uber provide quick, point-to-point rides, but become expensive when used on a regular basis. Many services run only during limited hours and some require a 24-hour advance booking, making them less than ideal in terms of availability and convenience. Aller tried using the city bus system, but found that she sometimes missed her stop due to seizures, which occur at any time with little or no warning. She used a subsidized program through Century Cab that provided $5 rides for people with disabilities, but government funding for that program ended.
“I get around with family, friends, sometimes Uber, if it’s not going to be too steep of a cost, cabs,” Aller said, “but nothing would make me more happy than just grabbing the keys, hopping in the car and getting what I forgot at the store, or grab the keys, go and meet a friend for coffee.”
Tom and Kathleen Aller of rural Cedar Rapids, Aller’s parents, remain a significant part of her transportation network.
“Usually one of us takes [Kristen] some place three to six times a week,” Kathleen Aller said. “Sometimes it’s both ways, but sometimes another volunteer where she is will pick her up and take her home. That’s because she’s an adult and can do networking.”
Mr. and Mrs. Aller, both retired, often drive Aller to weekday appointments when her own friends work. When not available to drive her, the Allers arrange rides for their daughter with their close friends or give her money for taxi fares.
“We’ve just worked it into our lifestyle, because we’re probably in town five times a day anyway,” Tom Aller said. “It really isn’t that big a deal. [Kristen] doesn’t drive. It’s just something you accept and it becomes part of your life.”
Aller said that her downtown residential location gives her a sense of independence as she can walk to destinations like NewBo City Market, her bank, restaurants, the public library and Theater Cedar Rapids. However, walking with a seizure disorder comes with its own risks. During Aller’s absence seizures—formerly called petit mal seizures—she becomes unresponsive to outside stimuli and generally immobile. Her seizures last from a few seconds to several minutes and sometimes occur in clusters. Kathleen Aller pointed to potentially dangerous situations in the past when her daughter had a seizure while crossing a street or a parking lot and was unable to move. Better seizure control for Aller in recent years lessens—but does not eliminate—this threat.
Kathleen Aller, who feels that the greatest barriers of current transportation services to people with disabilities include high cost and the inconvenience of using them, stated her idea for improvement.
“It would be a great research project to identify needs and to present a scenario for the community to become a part of helping people as opposed to just the family or just the person who has the need,” she said.
Tom Aller said of current transportation services, “If you don’t drive, you need a support system . . . for those that don’t have a support system, [transportation is] a very expensive proposition.”
Sloane Henry, Eastern Iowa service coordinator of the Epilepsy Foundation of North/Central Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, works daily to provide services to people with epilepsy.
Henry said of public transportation services, “the modes of transportation might be too costly, too irregular, or inaccessible to the individual. For instance, an individual whose employment schedule is not during traditional work hours may not be able to use the public transit system to get to work. A cab or Uber ride may be too expensive for the individual, or due to certain physical disabilities, utilizing a car or cab service is not feasible.
“Setting up van shares, providing more buses or trains that are accessible and inexpensive, and agencies providing transportation or reimbursement for transportation are just a few of the ways to address the issue,” Henry said. “More needs to be done so that transportation is no longer a barrier for people living with disabilities.”
Aller wants to see LIFTS of Linn County, or a similar inexpensive transportation option, expand into Johnson County. She knows of Cedar Rapids residents whose primary physicians practice at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. Those individuals would benefit from such an inter-county transit system.
Kathleen Aller said that her daughter advocates well for her own rights and needs. She learned to speak up for herself because she had to. Since traveling to Des Moines last March for Epilepsy Advocacy Day at the Capitol to tell Iowa legislators her story, Aller now seeks ways to advocate for the rights of others with disabilities.